Anatomy of a Scene #5: The Wrestler
“When did Motley Crue become classic rock?”
-Bowling for Soup, “1985”
I can’t say this for sure, as I haven’t been in touch with that community in a while, but I think if you asked most fans of Veronica Mars – the cult TV show about the teen detective of the title (Kristen Bell) – what was the show’s best episode, “Mars vs. Mars”, the fourteenth episode of the first season, would probably rank pretty high on the list. Certainly, I think it’s one of the best. It has three plots to juggle – as per the episode title, Veronica sides against her private detective father Keith (Enrico Colantoni) when fellow student Carrie Bishop (Leighton Meester) accuses history teacher Mr. Rooks (Adam Scott) of sexually harassing her, Logan (Jason Dohring), with whom Veronica has (and will have) a complicated relationship, hires Veronica to find his mother, whom he believes is still alive and did not kill herself (as per the previous episodes), and finally, Veronica continues her season-long investigation of who really killed her best friend Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfried) – but does so without any strain. It has some great character development, is a mirror to a previous episode (“Drinking the Kool-Aid”, the ninth episode) where the detective who let passion cloud their judgement was wrong, and has some very funny moments, including a classic exchange between Veronica and Weevil (Francis Capra), the bad-boy biker who occasionally helps Veronica (and vice versa) that first led people to suspect the Standards and Practices board at UPN (the network that originally aired the show) was out to lunch (“So, you got a trophy for a rim job?”). And on the forums of Television Without Pity, which recapped the show, and which I followed and posted on, all of those story points and more were discussed vigorously.
However, one of the biggest topics of discussion was one I didn’t see coming, but in retrospect should have. Early in the episode, after Carrie has just accused Mr. Rooks in class, we see her sitting alone outside at lunchtime, and a girl sitting at a table behind her starts to sing The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”, with her two friends joining in (in a nice touch, they skip a verse). A few forum posters found it hard to believe high school students of that generation (the episode aired in February of 2005) would know an 80’s song like that, while many posters responded either they were of that generation and knew the song and other 80’s music well, or they knew people of that generation who knew the song and other 80’s music well. Personally, I not only believed it, but also appreciated the fact (1) it was (well) played as a joke, and (2) it was a case of 80’s nostalgia that wasn’t done for kitsch (the very next episode, they did have an 80’s dance, and it was sort of kitsch, but it was funny).
That, however, was 2005. Since then, we’ve had an endless stream of remakes of 80’s movies, either bringing back or remaking 80’s TV shows, and covers of 80’s songs, and while some of it may be sincere, most of it is wrapping the 80’s inside a nostalgia box, reworking it in lieu of getting any new ideas, or as kitsch. Intellectually, I know this is how people who were teenagers in the 50’s, 60’s and70’s felt when it happened to their generation’s culture, but as someone who went to high school and college during the 80’s, it is a little disconcerting, to say the least, to see those years commercialized like that (of course, there’s the argument that decade was never any good to begin with, culture-wise, but that’s a completely different discussion). And even without the remakes and reboots and covers, it’s rare to see a movie or TV show that doesn’t treat 80’s culture as kitsch. One happy exception is the 2008 film The Wrestler, in particular the bar scene.
Darren Aronofsky’s film, written by Robert Siegel, is about Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), an aging professional wrestler whose body can no longer handle the stress he puts on it inside the ring (an especially graphic scene involves a staple gun) and outside (in addition to the pain medication he’s taking, he drinks). And though he still gets along with people in the wrestling community, his heyday is over (his main source of income is now working at a deli counter in a supermarket, and he lives in a trailer park). He also has an estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood); after he suffers a heart attack nearly halfway through the movie, he decides to go see her, but she wants nothing to do with him. Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper Randy is friends with (and who is also in a profession where her age is an impediment), agrees to help him find Stephanie a gift as a way of breaking the ice between them. After they go to a vintage clothing store and they pick out something (he wants to get her a neon green jacket with the letter “S” on it, but Cassidy, whose real name is Pam, convinces him to get a winter coat as well), Randy asks her to have a beer with him. Cassidy demurs, saying she has to get back to her nine-year-old son (he doesn’t know, because it’s not something she tells the customers; “it’s not usually a turn-on”), but he eventually convinces her.
The first thing we see in the next scene is a picture of Cassidy’s son, Jameson, on her cell phone; as Aronofsky and editor Andrew Weisblum cut back and forth between a series of close-ups on both Cassidy and either Randy or the phone, Randy complements Cassidy on her son and how good he looks, and there’s the usual line about who he gets his looks from. Then Randy comes upon a picture of a house under construction, and when he asks about it, the scene cuts to a medium shot of the two of them sitting at the (relatively empty) bar, and Cassidy, after leaning in to see what he’s looking at, grabs the phone away. She explains it’s a condo share being built in Trenton (the film takes place mostly in New Jersey), and it’s where she hopes to move, because the schools are great and it’s cheaper. When Randy asks about her gig, Cassidy says she’s giving it up, which he looks downhearted about. That’s when Ratt’s “Round and Round” starts to play in the bar, and Randy, who immediately gets a gleeful look of recognition, starts to dance. He asks her to join; when she demurs again (saying she dances to it enough at work, which is another reason why she’s considered past her prime, as the other strippers use more modern music), he says he’ll dance for her. We get a couple of medium shots to show Randy dancing, but mostly, it’s an exchange of close-ups, especially when the two of them start to sing along (“I knew right from the beginning/That you would end up winning/I knew right from the start/You’d put an arrow through my heart/Round and Round”). At the first line of the chorus, they stop, and then start to reminisce about “the good old days” of music (he mentions Guns-n-Roses, she mentions Motley Crue and Def Leppard), until Nirvana came along and ruined everything (Cassidy: “Like there’s something wrong with wanting to have a good time”). Ram then talks about how he hated the 90’s, and he and Cassidy each say, “Nineties fuckin’ sucked.” Emboldened, Randy moves in and kisses her; at first, it’s just one, but as Aronofsky cuts back to a medium shot, Randy moves in again. As we cut back to a close-up, Cassidy at first starts to embrace Randy and get into it, but then she pulls back, and reminds Randy of her rule of “no contact with the customers”, and says she has to go. When Randy, trying to save it, reminds her she said she’d have one beer, her response is to take the bottle and down the rest of it, say “One beer”, and then walk out. During that time, we hear the same part of the song they were singing along to earlier, and it’s another medium shot of Randy watching her walk out.
Now, obviously there’s a whole subtext to the scene that’s less from the writing, directing and acting – as good as they are, which I’ll get to in a minute – than from the performers saying those lines. Rourke, of course, had a big career in the 80’s, with both critically acclaimed films or performances (Diner, Barfly, Johnny Handsome) and big hits (9 1/2 Weeks, Angel Heart). But in the 90’s, a combination of a reputation of being difficult to work with, a series of bad career choices (except for good turns in The Rainmaker and Buffalo ’66) and a turn into a boxing career that wrecked his looks, not to mention a turbulent personal life, wrecked his career. Tomei, of course, won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1992 for My Cousin Vinny, but of course she was immediately dogged with snide comments about how she didn’t really win and that presenter Jack Palance had read the wrong name (another way of showing how comedy performances are undervalued). And while she worked steadily in some interesting projects (Equinox, Untamed Heart, Welcome to Sarajevo, The Slums of Beverly Hills), she never graduated to the leading lady status she at first looked like she was heading towards (Untamed Heart, Only You – the romantic comedy she did with Robert Downey Jr. – and The Perez Family, all of which featured her as the female lead, were all box office disappointments). So there’s a conviction to that exchange of how “the 90’s sucked” that you wouldn’t have gotten from two other actors.
But even without that particular subtext around it, the scene still works. Both characters, as I mentioned before, are considered somewhat relics in their respective professions, and they’re both holding on to dreams; Randy of making a comeback, Cassidy of quitting and getting a better life for herself and her son. And yet, Cassidy has set up a shield around her that Randy hasn’t – except for the shots of Randy dancing, the only medium shots are to establish how the intimacy between him and Cassidy has been broken – so despite whatever feelings she may have towards him, she ultimately doesn’t go through with them, at least here. And Siegel keeps the dialogue simple, without any big speeches, so the emotion of the scene comes through, and Aronofsky’s equally simple direction respects that. Finally, the subtlety of the performances make this moment powerful. Instead of playing the moment for pathos, Rourke just lets a rueful look cross his face after he’s turned down, and the way Tomei goes from being open with Randy to shutting him down completely is also chilling for the manner-of-fact way she portrays it.
And then there’s that song. In an interview he gave with New York magazine, Aronofsky mentioned Rourke, who apparently hates hair metal, didn’t want to use Ratt’s song, but wanted Guns-n-Roses’ “Sweet Child O’Mine”. At the time, Aronofsky told Rourke they didn’t have the music budget available for it (eventually, Rourke, who apparently is friends with Axl Rose in real life, was able to get ahold of Rose, who agreed to let them use the song at a lower fee than usual; it’s the song Randy uses as his intro when going into the wrestling ring for his match near the end). More importantly, however, Aronofsky said connecting over something like “Round and Round” made the moment much more unique than it would have felt with the GNR song. And he’s right. Even if, like me, you were never a big fan of hair metal (I was also never a big fan of professional wrestling, either), and felt Nirvana et al was a necessary broom to sweep clean the excesses of the late 80’s, there is still a certain joy you can connect to in songs like that (you may not technically count Ratt as hair metal – though they apparently swung that way in their last album). Yes, it may bring back memories of how, like many other songs, “Round and Round” was played over and over on MTV in its prime (and the video featured Milton Berle, no less), but the moment is, as I said, a rare example these days in how an 80’s touchstone is used for real emotion, not kitsch or cheap nostalgia. And as a member of the 80’s generation (also known as the MTV generation), I’d like to thank Aronofsky et al for that.